I have been sorting through memorabilia.



Five generations worth of photos, newspaper clippings, report cards, dance cards, grade school art, certificates, ticket stubs, merit badge cards . . . you know – memorabilia.

This week I found a large black-and-white photo of my brother, Jay, tall and handsome. He looks to be about 21 or 22, so I would have been 13. He’s wearing a white tuxedo jacket. He is pinning a boutonnière on the lapel of our uncle, a military physician, who is also wearing a formal white jacket. I put the photo in the “keep” pile, mostly because it was a mystery to me. I could not remember, nor even imagine, the circumstances behind this image.

I sorted through many more inches of papers and photos before I quit for the day. Then, later that afternoon, it came to me: that photo must have been taken on the day of my cousin Judy’s wedding. Jay would have been a groomsman. I remembered nothing about the ceremony nor the reception. But I retrieved a fragment of an emotion, and then a flash of memory: we’re on our family’s long drive home from the wedding celebration. I am looking pensively out the back window of the car and crying; I’m stroking Jay’s thick wavy hair as he sleeps with his head on my lap. Then other wispy fragments, hardly big enough to be called memories, squirmed around inside me: Jay drinking too much at the reception; my humiliated parents; us packing up in embarrassment and heading home. Angry parents in the front seat, with our youngest sibling between them. Jay passed out in the back seat. And me, his adoring sister, holding him to protect us both from being pummeled by powerful emotional undercurrents I don’t quite understand.

One week after that photo was taken, Jay would begin medical school. Two weeks later was his own wedding ceremony. And just three weeks after that Jay would die in a private plane crash.

It’s a poignant story. I clearly remember getting word of his death, and much of everything that happened in the following weeks. But I was blind-sided by my brief memory of siding with him and comforting him that one day six weeks before he died. Without the mystery photo that memory might never have surfaced.

As I’ve sorted memorabilia I’ve gleaned a few items to save, culled most into “recycle” or “burn pile” bags; I’ve held and considered each and every piece before deciding which goes where.

But philosophically I am puzzled, wondering what is the purpose of this exercise. What good did it do, that particular memory of Jay? How do these pieces of my history serve me? Why not just dump everything? Or why don’t I leave all the boxes stuffed under my bed and let my progeny worry about the contents?

And here’s another, more perplexing question: of what value are memories in general? Would it be such a tragedy to develop dementia? I expect all my memories to evaporate anyway, when I die; or perhaps I’ll be presented with all my memories at once for me to review in something like a film called “Cynthia’s Life Condensed Into Two Minutes.” So why am I caught up in the sorting of memories now? (Probably Inie, my beloved Jungian therapist from thirty years ago, would have an answer, offered in her gentle Dutch accent. But I think I’d rather figure it out for myself.)

How much of my life’s details have I forgotten? Far more than those I remember.

How many of those forgotten memories are important to me now? Not many, I’ll bet.

Would I want to change any of the details of my life if I could? No, not even the really painful ones. Because I like who I am, and I couldn’t have become who I am without everything that adds up to be me.

Here’s a thought: maybe it’s more important to try to bless each moment as it happens, and then let it go, confident that it has served my life’s inscrutable purpose. Instead of GATHERING memories, maybe I should just BE the sum of them in the moment.

Nevertheless, I suspect I’ll continue doggedly pulling one box after another out from under my bed; I’ll continue sorting through the contents, keeping some, discarding most, and finding an occasional gem that helps me honor and appreciate, even more, all the moments that have contributed to a life that I really like a lot.

The first one is filled with file folders, some notebooks, several old kitchen calendars, and a smaller box, labeled in my father’s hand: “Sentimental Journey.” None of this stuff is mine. Or at least it wasn’t mine originally. But I’ve carried it around with me, through 26 years and 5 moves, so it’s mine now. Along with the dozen other boxes of similar stuff.

My question is, Are the contents of this box (these boxes) a legacy or a burden? Are they my history and my heritage, or junk and emotional snares? If I comb through every piece in every box, will I be grateful when they offer me insight into my family’s story? Will the insight have been worth the effort? Or is all of it just an obligatory weight I’ve been hauling around, like an albatross?

Inside the “Sentimental Journey” box are a stack of black and white photos and a reel that holds a hundred 35mm slides. Each slide is numbered according to which slot it belongs to on the reel, but there is no identification on any of the slides. Nor is there any on the prints. Oh, Daddy, who are these people in the photos? Where are these woodlands and farms on the slides, these rivers and train tracks, these houses? Whose are these weather-worn headstones in the country graveyards? Should your sentimental journey matter to me?

And Mother, all these wall calendars are inscribed with your social engagements and medical appointments, along with reminders of birthdays and anniversaries. You kept them for decades past their particular years. Is it important to you now that I keep these details of your history? Are they my history too? If I throw them away, along with the class notes from your masters degree, and the children’s papers from the years of fourth-grade classes you taught – is that an insult to the meaning of your life?

The contents of these boxes are fragments of the good stories of the lives of good people. But how many photos of how many life stages of how many people is “enough”? Am I willing to spend the months and years of my own life that would be necessary to sort meticulously through the papers, piece them together, condense them into a narrative more manageable than the dozens of boxes of stuff? Or do I dare to throw it all away? Or shall I, once again, reseal the boxes, shove them back under my bed, and put off the decision for another year or two?

And what might I want from my own children and grandchildren? Will I care if they keep all my files of stuff, the details of the stories of my life? No, I think not.

I would hope that the next generations would know my name, keep one flattering photo, know that I was once here, and that I was somebody worth knowing. Even better, I’d love for them to ask me now, while I’m still here, for a few of the stories that have shaped me. Let me see my history, my legacy, reflected in their faces, illuminated by their interest.

Then after I die, I hope someone will pass along a copy of my published book to a generation or two. Maybe a few excerpts from some of my journals that I’ve illustrated with photos. Maybe a couple of my published poems. If that is done, then I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine with having the rest of my drawers of files (yes, it is junk) disposed of. I’ll be content for those details of my history to just fade away.

Here’s hoping my parents would, on reflection, feel the same way. Because the verdict is in on my original questions: These boxes may not be filled with junk, but they are definitely a burden. So this week I shall bless each box in its turn, then sort the contents quickly and simply with only the recycle center in mind.

Maybe next month I’ll start on the boxes of my own saved stuff.